Archive Project: “The Naked Goddess”

“The Naked Goddess,” a strikingly long poem by James Thomson (, is the story of a goddess (surprise!) who is found communing with animals in the woods. The poem examines her influence on a community, particularly two children from that community, using these and other elements to emphasize tensions between men and women, children and adults, social order and nature, and a smattering of other dichotomies. There is even a bit of tension between religion and divinity, although the most overt queerness can be seen in the goddess’s refusal to bend to religiously based gender roles and other oppressive social structures. While I only have space to analyze a small section from the first half of the poem, the latter half deals with colonialism and a pair of lovers, allowing for even more queer readings of this text.

For my excerpt, I chose five stanzas from the second and third pages of the poem (pages 167 and 168 in the publication). The first of these stanzas (the fifth in the poem) employs sensual language while solidifying the connection between the goddess and nature. The goddess’s lack of clothing is emphasized, and she is shown fondling and caressing animals. In this situation, her sexuality is on display—along with every other part of her—and the onlooking crowd, one can assume, is rather scandalized. However, the crowd isn’t given the opportunity to express the kind of outrage that one might expect from a group of Victorians confronted with a naked woman. Instead, the next stanza sees the crowd silenced by the roar of a lion and the reaction of the goddess as she “Sprang erect, grew up in height, / Smote them with the flash and blaze / Of her terrible, swift gaze.” By using the word erect to characterize the goddess’s actions, Thomson challenges gender roles, and arguably the gender binary itself. He depicts the goddess as being full of awe-inspiring power. Since the goddess uses this power in masculine (exerting herself over the crowd) and feminine (lovingly caressing dangerous animals) ways, her gender is somewhat muddy, despite the emphasis on her status as a member of the female sex.

In the fourth and fifth stanzas from this excerpt, a priest and a sage take turns asking the goddess to give up her wild nature. The priest emphasizes religiously based values such as self-sacrifice and virginity, while the sage attempts to convince the goddess that she is wasting her mind. Both stanzas are full of queerness, emphasizing many of the ways in which the goddess does not fit into Victorian British society. She is given clothing with which she is supposed to cover up, again highlighting her nakedness. Furthermore, by encouraging her to become a “clean and chaste” virgin, the priest implies that the goddess is not “clean and chaste” (the latter being a reasonable assumption, given that she is naked and fondling animals in the woods). This is clearly meant to be a shameful suggestion, but the goddess isn’t fazed. Meanwhile, the sage suggests that living with the beasts makes her ignorant in an attempt to enforce a separation between humans and nature, a separation that the goddess blatantly ignores.

The rest of the poem is no less queer than my chosen excerpt. While she makes a polite effort to listen to both men, the goddess eventually rejects the stifling lives offered by the priest and the sage. As the story develops, the themes I mentioned at the start of this post combine to form a nuanced critique of Victorian social norms, resulting in a fascinating piece of literature.


Thomson, James. “The Naked Goddess.” Our Corner, vol. i, no. 3, 1883, p. 166+. Nineteenth Century Collections Online, Accessed 17 Nov. 2016.

This Poem is Not for Babies

When I first read Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”, I took it to be a poem about the dangers of female sexuality, pre-marital sex, race, and emotional entanglement, with a sexual assault (or, quite possibly, rape) scene thrown in for kicks and giggles. So hearing that this poem is for children kind of blew my mind. I mean, look at the scene on page 12:


“One may lead a horse to water,

Twenty cannot make him drink.

Though the goblins cuffed and caught her,

Coaxed and fought her,

Bullied and besought her,

Scratched her, pinched her black as ink,

Kicked and knocked her,

Mauled and mocked her,

Lizzie uttered not a word;

Would not open lip from lip

Lest they should cram a mouthful in:

But laughed in heart to feel the drip

Of juice that syrupped all her face,

And lodged in dimples of her chin,

And streaked her neck which quaked like curd.

At last the evil people,

Worn out by her resistance,

Flung back her penny, kicked their fruit

Along whichever road they took,” (12)


Well. That’s not disturbing at all. If there wasn’t a word limit on this prompt, I’d quote the preceding pair of stanzas, but I think the above gets my point across quite well. This poem uses the good sister, Lizzie, to suggest that nice young women don’t have sex. In fact, nice young women are so against pre-marital sex that it is impossible to rape them, because they just won’t “open lip from lip.” Great. It’s always encouraging to hear the suggestion that if women just resist hard enough, they cannot be raped (although the poem does suggest they can still be brutalized, and have “juice” sprayed all over their faces, which is does not sound pleasant in the least).


This stanza is more than just victim blaming, though. If Lizzie were to “open lip from lip,” like her younger sister did, she would become addicted to something she can never have again. In this case, that something is goblin fruit, although the juicy, juicy fruit is a thinly veiled representation of sex. That relationship between fruit (sex) and addiction is a clear warning to young women that if they start having sex before marriage, they will be unable to resist the temptation to do it again. In the poem, this addiction leads them to waste away, but it suggests a slightly less fatal outcome for actual Victorian women who give in to temptation. Victorian men wanted to marry virgins, so if a woman was found to be having sex, it probably wouldn’t have be good for her marriage prospects. In a society where marriage and procreation make up a woman’s entire purpose in life, losing the chance for those things to happen would mean an end to her future. The loss of a future is strikingly similar to the loss of a life, so suddenly, a deadly addiction to fruit makes a lot more sense in the context of Victorian sexuality.

Count Fosco: Looking Beyond the Iron Rod

The control Count Fosco wields over other people, particularly women, can make reading about him a fascinating, albeit somewhat uncomfortable, experience. I’ve always found his relationship with his wife disturbing (one needn’t look further than page 222’s “rod of iron with which he rules her” to see why), so I was really quite surprised when this particular character discussed Victorian gender roles and marital laws in a way that is difficult to interpret as anything other than a strange criticism of the status quo.

During the count’s evil rant of evilness, wherein he reveals to Walter just how he accomplished the switching of Laura and Anne, he asks, “Where in the history of the world, has a man of my order ever been found without a woman in the background, self-immolated on the altar of his life?” He later continues, “I ask, if a woman’s marriage obligations, in this country, provide for her private opinion of her husband’s principals? No! They charge her unreservedly to love, honour, and obey him.” (612).

This is a fascinating statement. Count Fosco certainly shows no remorse when it comes to his treatment of his wife, but he also suggests that he was quite aware of her plight. The book implies that Madame Fosco has lost much of her personality since marrying the count. She once believed in women’s rights, now she dutifully serves a murderous sociopath. I say sociopath because of that lack of remorse. The Count suggests that his wive has “self-immolated on the alter of his life,” but he consciously took advantage of that situation. This section of the novel says more than ‘Count Fosco is a creepy jerk,’ though. It also suggests that women can be too dedicated to their husbands, which was a pretty radical idea for the Victorians. As the Count noted, the law charged women “unreservedly to love, honour, and obey” their husbands, leaving no room for their own opinions and, dare I say, personalities. By pointing the reader’s attention towards the plight of his own wife, and towards the fact that her plight was caused by following those social norms (norms that were reinforced by actual laws), Count Fosco pretty much critiques the very situation he was taking advantage of. Talk about a complicated villain!

Fun Times with Impenetrable Gloom

“Through what mortal crime and horror, through what darkest windings of the way down to Death, the lost creature had wandered in God’s leading to the last home that, living, she never hoped to reach! In that sacred rest, I leave her–in that dread companionship, let her remain undisturbed.


So the ghostly figure which has haunted these pages as it haunted my life, goes down into the impenetrable Gloom. Like a Shadow she first came to me, in the loneliness of the night. Like a Shadow she passes away, in the loneliness of the dead.”

That cheery excerpt concludes the second chapter-like section of the Third Epoch. (Worth noting because it amuses me: It’s located on page 555, which is hilariously similar to 666.) While I’m not sure how this quote will show up in WordPress, which has a well-observed habit of screwing with everything I do, the second paragraph is set apart from the rest of the story by a solid line. Talk about blank spaces telling the whole story–this blank space leaves the end of chapter-section two looking like an epitaph! And of course, whenever anything is overly-asserted (especially an ending, since good old Wilkie has already faked us out more than once), one must be suspicious.

So then, what’s really going on here?

Well, Anne Catherick is dead, at least physicaly, but it’s worth remembering that she isn’t legally dead, which makes the grave paragraph above somewhat ironic. I have to wonder if Wilkie Collins isn’t setting us up for one of three things to happen. Firstly, our dearest Laura could really be Anne Catherick after all. To be honest, I don’t believe this, but it’s worth considering just because of how much that passage has hammered home the memory of her death. Secondly, it’s possible that Laura will never be able to get her own name back, but that she will be able to reclaim her fortune somehow just by proving Anne’s parentage. Which would be ironic again, because then poor Anne would remain both dead and alive. I’m not too fond of this theory either, because it seems wildly implausible, but it would be an interesting twist.

What’s most likely going on here, though, is that Collins is hinting that Anne will finally be put to rest. Because, as I have mentioned, while she is technically dead, she’s legally living, and that leaves her in an odd state of limbo. That second paragraph, on the other hand, really asserts her deadness, which could mean that her state of alive-and-deadness is coming to an end. I mean, if that little epitaph is to be trusted, then Anne isn’t just dead, she has disappeared “down into the impenetrable Gloom.” Which has got to be code for super-dead or something because it is so gosh-darn deathy. (It’s possible that this is a reference to Greek mythology, where Hades rules the underworld. If Anne was a ghost all along, then her leaving for his domain, as the phrase “down into the impenetrable Gloom” certainly suggests, indicates that her spirit has finally departed this world. Which in turn indicates that she is basically double-dead.)

So if Anne is so dead she’s double-dead, what does this have to say about the rest of the story? To summarize my argument: it might be the author’s way of telling the reader that Laura’s return to her old identity is coming, it might be an ironic indication that poor Anne was never dead at all, or it might suggest that Anne will live on legally for a while yet. We shall see.

Madman with a Cleaver: Women and Mental Illness in Victorian (and Modern) Culture


Women with agency are hard to control, and women who can’t be controlled are dangerous to Victorian ideals. We’ve talked about this in class. Heck, we’ve talked about similar ideas outside of class, since this concept does, to a certain degree, apply to our own culture. Women with agency are hard to control, and that frightens people in power. Even more threatening are people, especially women, with mental illnesses. The mentally ill are seen as difficult, sometimes impossible to control. Even in modern times, we are often written off as erratic, a view that is used to diminish (or at least hide) our role in society and to excuse an unhealthy and unjustified fear of us.


Anne Catherick may or may not have been mentally ill when she was forced into an asylum, but her behavior upon escaping certainly defies any expectations one might have of a proper Victorian woman. As Sr. Percival’s lawyer, Mr. Merriman, puts it, “A dangerous woman to be at large, Mr. Gilmore; nobody knows what she may do next” (154). And he’s right—nobody does! Anne Catherick remains a mystery thus far in the novel, but the danger she poses to ideas of what a woman should be in her society is so strong that it cannot be shrouded, not even by the aura of uncertainty that surrounds her and her past.


The portrayal of Anne Catherick as (potentially) mentally ill reflects Victorian and modern views on mental illness, views that I have more or less covered. Anne’s behavior is unpredictable, which makes her impossible to control. Furthermore, she has been successful in evading Sir. Percival’s reach, signifying escape from a social hierarchy governed by class, gender, and money (three things that place Sir. Percival in power). Because Anne is a woman, and a lower class woman at that, her escape from a hierarchy that would deny her even the most basic power (power over the self) is a threatening one. If more women were like Anne, they could completely upend Victorian society, and where would Sir. Percival be then?


By interpreting Anne as mentally ill, her society minimizes her power as an autonomous woman while also stigmatizing her and excusing her mistreatment. And to be completely honest, this is not solely a Victorian issue. Stigma around mental illness remains a huge problem, and that stigma is sometimes co-opted in order to dismiss women. In modern America, mental illness is often talked about in the context of violence, suggesting that mentally ill people are more likely than people who are not mentally ill to be violent (they aren’t: Take today’s trending topics on Facebook, which actually included the phrase “Madman with a Cleaver.” How does that not strengthen the association between mental illness and danger? On a less sensational level, I suspect that most of us have heard an outspoken woman called “crazy” at one point or another (some of us have even been that woman). What does it say about our society that women who demonstrate power still risk being dismissed as members of an even more marginalized group?


The Woman in White is a product of Victorian society, but it’s hard not to notice its modern connections. Regardless of whether or not Anne Catherick is actually mentally ill, her confinement to an asylum and Mr. Merriman’s later comments both reflect fears of autonomous women and unpredictability. These fears continue to infect in our own society, and while blame can only be placed on us for continuing to promote them, it is interesting to look at their earlier manifestations in Victorian literature.